Back on October 25, 2014, I had the pleasure of being able to interview a man with an amazing life story to share. For almost 2 hours, Mr. John O’Hara (93 years young) kept me engrossed in his words. He shared about his family’s immigration to the United States from England (1921-1923) to enlisting into the Navy after Pearl Harbor, nearly dying trapped below on a sinking ship to how he has dealt with PTSD and so much more. He also provides his opinion on war not being glorious – as portrayed in films. It was an action packed retelling of one man’s amazing life.
Mr. O’Hara’s video interview runs at just over 1 hour and 52 minutes. (My plan is to attempt to divide it into 2 parts.) That’s a long YouTube video by many standards. I have attached the link to the full length video for you to watch. Please, watch it at you leisure. He has so many memories. Who could edit them out? I can’t. However, that’s the one good thing about documenting life histories. I don’t have to edit if I don’t want to do so. Each person’s retelling is how they saw and experienced life. It’s there own truth. I comprehend that something important and wise for me to hear may not be so for another. However, something that isn’t so interesting to me may be just what another person needs to hear for where they are in their present life. Therefore, I have decided not to edit the video life histories of my subjects other than obvious quality issues or recording errors. The histories of our elders are too valuable to compress into more convenient sound bites. I cannot judge or deem what is most important from one’s life experience that it should be kept in a documentary vs. on the virtual cutting room floor.
The movie, “Unbroken”, is set for release on Christmas Day here in the United States. It’s about Louis Zamperini’s amazing life and story of remarkable survival at sea then as a WW II POW in Japan. It is also about overcoming PTSD, learning to forgive and how to get back to living given the horrors he experienced. Mr. O’Hara was a runner like Louie and he was a survivor but his story doesn’t include being a POW. However, he too has experienced PTSD, having to forgive and his has been an amazing life so far.
Mr. O’Hara, John, saw action during WW II on the coast of North Africa as part of Operation Torch. His squad assisted in getting General Patton’s soldiers on the beach. Imagine being told, “Remember. You are not important. Get those men on the beach!” An eery feeling comes over me as I envision John’s recall that Patton’s men “looked right through you…like you weren’t there” as they scaled the ropes down into the boats set for the beach. Seeing bodies fly into the air crashing down into the waters as they took on fire from the enemy. For me it’s my imagination. For John, it’s memories as real today as they were then.
It is soon after off the coast of Morocco that the attack transporter John was on, the USS Scott, was torpedoed by German U-boats and sunk. John was down under in his compartment with 4 others. Trapped. John should have died that day. He recalls in great detail what happened to him. His lungs filling with oil slicked water. Holding his breath. Lungs about to explode from the pressure. His body hit in two places. Yet, miraculously, he survived. His comrades – didn’t. How do you live with that? He stills wonders “why not me”. Yet it was the fact that he did somehow survive that changed how he behaved towards his charges later on in battle as he rose up in rank. It also affected how he approached life not fearing to take chances to be happy, not worrying about the future, living for the present.
John returned to the war after his survival leave. Another commanding officer had him return to sea right away for fear that John wouldn’t be able to handle being on the water if he stayed on shore as planned. He was already showing what we would call flashbacks. Being fearful of the water would be the kiss of death for a Navy man. He was able to be reassigned as a seaman, no longer wanting to be a firefighter down below deck.
He was now part of the USS Alabama. While on the Alabama, John first sailed to the Arctic to participate, in the dead of winter, in the Battle North Atlantic with the American/British fleet. It was a covert operation. Well, it didn’t stay covert due to the hubris of a famous ballplayer on board. As a result, the Alabama then began its journey down through the Panama Canal to begin playing its part in the Pacific Asiatic fleet until the end of the war. John talks in-depth about his experiences as part of the 3rd and 5th fleet from 1943-1945. The strategy of McArthur, Halsey and Mitscher explained. He recalls the fear executing Mitscher’s orders to shoot directly straight up into the air to shoot down Japanese zamikase. Fear because if the ammunition came back down on the ships, “we could blow up”. The experience of seeing “large brown bags” floating by in the water only to be told those were the bloated bodies of the Japanese airmen having been shot down. Finally the experience of patrolling in Japan after the surrender.
The final 40 minutes of Mr. O’Hara’s interview centers on life after the war. He speaks with blatant honesty about how he feels Hollywood glorifies battle and misinforms the public to what actually happened during some events of the war. He gives his opinion on Edward Snowden’s leaking of classified information and asks what would have been the outcome in WW II if Snowden had not maintained classified information from the Germans and Japanese. He speaks a little about the recent poor care of veterans at the VA hospitals. Agree with him or not, he served his country during a critical time in history. He’s entitled to his opinion.
John also has been open about the fact that he had what we now diagnose as PTSD. Back then it was called being ‘shellshocked’. There has always been a means of output for John when he was feeling overwhelmed, anxious, stressed. It was his writing. During the war, John amassed 70 poems as a way to “really control myself”. He has continued to write. There are donated copies of his writings including one at the Newport (RI) War Library. As an homage to his wife of 55 years, after her death he began speaking to others about his experiences in the war. He specifically targets talking to high school students. John does not accept any money or donations for what he does. Any attempts have resulted in being donated to other veteran focused organizations.
Here is John in his own words on how he has lived his life since returning from WW II and dealing with PTSD.
“Worry about today, not tomorrow. Material things can be replaced but your body can’t. Live today and do things you’re supposed to and if you feel yourself getting worked up…just say to yourself, it’s not worth it…it’s not worth it and get it outta ya. And that’s the way I live.”